HC Deb 06 November 2001 vol 374 cc99-102
28. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

What action he is taking in response to the High Court decision relating to self-employed guardians ad litem and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. [10338]

29. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

If he will make a statement on the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. [10339]

30. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of CAFCASS during its first six months of operation. [10340]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton)

CAFCASS is a new organisation that brings together the Family Court Welfare Service, the Children's Division of the Official Solicitor and the local authority panels of guardians ad litem in one unified service. It began only on 1 April 2001.

Since the inception of CAFCASS, the dispute over the guardians' contractual terms has taken a vast amount of time and effort and has diverted attention from other important issues. In response to the High Court decision relating to self-employed guardians, the Lord Chancellor issued a statutory direction to CAFCASS to begin consultations, and that process has begun. I receive weekly reports from the chairman of CAFCASS and have regular meetings with him.

Despite the problems, the evidence is that the service on the ground has generally continued to be provided as before. We value extremely highly the work of all the guardians and other CAFCASS staff, whether they are employed or self-employed, and I hope that all sides can now move on to develop the child-focused service that I am sure we all want to achieve.

Mr. Speaker

That answer was far too long.

Mr. Kidney

Is my hon. Friend aware that some very effective guardians have been made to feel unwelcome in the new service merely because they are self-employed? What does she say to the managers of the new service: are self-employed guardians welcome or unwelcome?

Ms Winterton

My hon. Friend is right to say that there have been difficulties with self-employed guardians. We are consulting every self-employed guardian on the issue of self-employment. He will be interested to know that CAFCASS has accepted the National Association of Guardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers proposal that the consultation process be led by an independent chairman and that the results be independently assessed. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend some reassurance about the position of self-employed guardians.

Dr. Cable

Does not the Minister accept that the quango has been guilty of extraordinary incompetence, not merely in acting illegally and alienating a crucial profession, but in driving 20 of its 54 regional managers to resignation in six months? As the management appears to be denying its accountability to Parliament through the hon. Lady, will she assert its accountability by having these people dismissed?

Ms Winterton

I reiterate that, throughout, our central concern has been to provide a good service to vulnerable people. All who are involved with CAFCASS share that aim. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that CAFCASS is a non-departmental public body, and as such it is governed by a framework document. Over and above that, it is a publicly funded body. It is fully accountable to the Public Accounts Committee, for example, and subject to regular scrutiny. The evidence from our independent inspections is that the service on the ground is generally being delivered extremely well. That is a tribute to all those who work for the service.

Paddy Tipping

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for accepting that there have been problems—understandable, perhaps—in setting up CAFCASS. Does she share my belief that the resignation of 22 of the 55 panel managers is genuinely worrying? Is the driver behind that an insufficient budget for CAFCASS and, perhaps, poor management? I know that there have been difficulties with management in the organisation. Is my hon. Friend confident that those problems have now been resolved?

Ms Winterton

I know that my hon. Friend is extremely concerned about that situation. He gave figures for panel managers; my figures show that, actually, 16 panel managers will have left the service by the end of December, but that includes a number who will have retired and some who have been promoted. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that of the 729 guardians who were self-employed on 1 April, only 29 have left the service; 175 have now accepted employment contracts. Of course we accept that there have been difficulties in the service. However, I repeat that I am meeting the chairman of the board weekly and am receiving regular reports from him. I am determined that the service will work for the children whom it was set up to look after.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

Does the Minister not recognise that all the problems were entirely predictable? Indeed, they were predicted by Opposition Members. I know that that is not the Minister's fault, because she joined the Department only after the relevant Bill became law. However, if she studies all the debates, both in the House and in Committee, on the Bill that set up CAFCASS, as I hope she will, she will find that my hon. Friends and I repeatedly predicted the problems with CAFCASS that have now occurred.

The Government were arrogant and dismissive, and did not take a blind bit of notice. Having sown the wind, they have now reaped the whirlwind. Will the Minister undertake to look again at those debates and learn the lesson that, in future, she and her new ministerial colleagues need to listen to Opposition Members with experience of this legal field?

Ms Winterton

I will of course listen to representations, particularly from professionals in the field. However, when the service was set up, it was widely accepted that bringing all the disparate groups together in one unified service was the best way forward for vulnerable children. I will of course listen to representations, but evidence from independent assessments shows that, on the ground, the service is generally working well.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I thank my hon. Friend for the encouragement that she has given the guardians in her responses. When will it be possible to fill the substantial number of administrative and legal vacancies at all levels of CAFCASS in Wales, so that the service to vulnerable children to which she referred will not be harmed?

Ms Winterton

I thank my hon. Friend and reiterate the high value that we place on the work done by the guardians. Perhaps she will be reassured to know that, as I said earlier, of 729 guardians who were employed on 1 April, only 29 have left the service; 175 have now accepted employment contracts. In addition, 197 candidates eligible for appointment as guardians have been recruited, which should fill any gaps in the service. Of course, if my hon. Friend has any particular points that she feels we need to look at, I hope that she will write to me; I give her an undertaking that I will look into them.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

In the light of that sorry tale and the High Court proceedings, will the Minister explain why, when CAFCASS made decisions that the guardians found unpalatable, it told them that the Lord Chancellor was responsible? When the Lord Chancellor made inconvenient promises, however, CAFCASS told the court that it was independent of the Lord Chancellor.

Ms Winterton

The hon. Gentleman and I have been together upstairs, but I take this opportunity to welcome him to his new position on the Floor of the House. I quite look forward to working with him.

As for the legal position, some of the points that were made in court referred to a technical matter that was raised by NAGALRO—the National Association of Guardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers. I assure him that we are working closely with the board of CAFCASS to ensure that the service is delivered. I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not join me in praising the very hard work and dedication not only of those employed but of the self-employed and other staff at CAFCASS. I hope that he may in future take the opportunity to do so.